The story goes like this: fugitive peasants being chased by authorities would drag a bunch of fish across their trail as they escaped, in an effort to divert the attention of the tracking dogs. Another story tells of hunters tying fish to a string and dragging them along a trail to train their dogs.
Either way, these stories tell the origin of the term “Red Herring.” Today, when someone accuses the other of using a Red Herring, he does not refer to someone who loves to drag fish around. He refers to a logical fallacy, the fallacy of distraction.
Red Herrings appear in many forms. They can be ad hominem fallacies as well, taking on a rich, lovely double-whammy and earning extra bonus points, if you’re counting fallacies in an argument. One could, in a debate, call his opponent a slimy dog, thus earning the simple ad hominem–distracting from the main point by attacking your opponent. Or, to add depth to one’s fallacy, one could not only slander, he could accuse his opponent of wrongdoing, causing him to stop in his tracks and defend himself, thus completely derailing the entire debate.
In the political world this happens the month before a big election. Called the “October Surprise,” a campaign will reveal some huge dirt on an opponent in October (since elections are in November). Then said opponent must spend time and resources defending himself instead of concentrating on bringing home the votes. The one dishing the dirt laughs all the way to the voting booth. He has taken attention off the vital points of the campaign, thus perhaps winning the election, or at least doing some major damage to his opponent’s reputation.
Sometimes listening to political commentators frustrates me. I want to hear the whole argument, but instead I find the opponents shouting each other down or diverting from the main point into little side issues that don’t matter. “How did you get yourself dragged down that trail?” I find myself shouting to the TV. And yet it happens again and again.
Debaters can (and should) control the argument better, by saying, “Now, you’re trying to pull me away from the main point here. Let’s go back and answer the real topic at hand.” Who gets the victory when someone is dragged away from the main point? That’s right–your opponent.
In class, I call this a “bunny trail.” Students love to try them out. Discussion goes in one direction; student takes it down some irrelevant line of discussion. If the teacher does not maintain control of the discussion, guess who does? Now, sometimes a bunny trail can be a great place for a while. Good side discussions can become a learning experience themselves. I just want to have some measure of control of where we go down that little trail, and haul it up short if we go so far we can’t see the main road.
So Fallacies of Distraction can take several forms. If you were in a debate, could you recognize them, divert them, and return to the point at hand? It’s harder than you think.
For more information about fallacies and logic, check out my text book, Biblical Worldview Rhetoric 1, at amazon.com.